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Are they for real?

By Kevin Sawyer

Orlando Magic

Record: 8-3
Projected: 60-22
Are they for real: No

Orlando will certainly make the playoffs, and Mickael Pietrus has been a revelation, but other signs do not point to a 60 win run. First, Dwight Howard has a habit of posting absurd numbers for about 30 games (4 bpg!), and then returning to Earth. Hedo Turkoglu is shooting 38% in a desperate attempt to replicate last year’s output.

But the biggest problem is their bench. Injuries will happen, and the dropoff is so steep at every position that any sustained injury could easily result in a stretch of sub-.500 ball. Given that Pietrus fouls a lot, which makes it difficult for him to stay on the court I wonder how this team will get through February and March. That said, this team could be a real threat come playoff time.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Record: 9-2
Projected: 67-15
Are they for real: Unfortunately, yes.

If you were expecting a LeBron let down, you’d look to the first 10-20 games. He has a habit of finishing strong, which is scary when you consider how ridiculously good he has been so far. The Mo Williams experiment is working swimmingly, giving LeBron a competent backcourt for the first time in his career. Varejao arrived in better shape, and even Big Ben is showing signs of life.

In short, Cleveland is looking like the team to beat this year, from either conference.

New York Knicks

Record: 6-5
Projected: 45-37
Are they for real?: Kinda

Uptempo style aside, there is another important reason to respect Mike D’Antoni. He gives the best players the most minutes. It seems so simple, but so many coaches let their ego, their doghouse, and Eric Snow get in the way of putting the best players on the court. D’Antoni quickly realized that Randolph and Curry couldn’t co-exist, and rightly opted for the more talented Randolph. He already has a solid eight-man rotation, with enough depth to survive an injury or two.

With the talent he has, a .500 season should earn Mike D’Antoni coach of the year in a landslide. It’s still the Knicks, but Donnie Walsh seems well on the way to turning things around here.

ON THE FLIP SIDE…

Minnesota Timberwolves

Record: 1-8
Projected: 9-73
Are they really this bad?: No

The playoff prognostications for this young team were overblown, but there is some talent here. Mike Miller has been absurdly under-utilized, and Kevin Love should improve as the season progresses. Frankly, the coaching staff is going to have to shore up this rotation, and find ways to get Miller more touches.

If Rashad McCants continues to hock 4 threes a game (with a 19% success rate), its time to pull the plug. The time to pull the plug on Corey Brewer was about 10 minutes before they drafted him. He is a bust. Randy Foye probably deserves one full season to see if he is the right fit. But Love, Miller and Jefferson are enough to win more games than this, and Craig Smith tends to improve as he sheds weight during the season.

Los Angeles Clippers

Record: 1-9
Projected: 8-74
Are they really this bad?: Of course they are.

Some sportswriters actually looked at this roster and thought the Clippers might reclaim a playoff spot. Those sportswriters should be unemployed right in the face. Gee, Baron Davis reverted to his former three-point jacking self after signing a big contract? Go figure. Camby and Kaman aren’t a good pairing? Whodathunkit?

Al Thornton has failed to make the leap, which is understandable given that 77-year-old rookies never make leaps. Oh, and they spent a lottery pick on Eric "Corey Brewer" Gordon. That about says it all. On a higher note, Ricky Davis can’t possibly be THIS bad. If he turns it around, this team might just scratch 15 wins.